The buzzword up here in the Pacific Northwest has been the new show in IFC starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein called Portlandia, based on the people and things found in and within Portland, Oregon. With an interest in wanting to move to Portland, I was interested to see what it was about.
From reading a number of articles and blogs, and hearing podcasts in Portland, it seemed people were either afraid of how Portlandia would show Portland, leery of how embarrassing it might make the city and its residents, while others could care less. The hate was strong, especially with excerpts of the show that could be found, but I think it was nothing more than a proud city who did not want to be looked at as or treated like animals in a zoo. Is Portlandia an example of the unique quirks that Portland does have? Yes, but not all of Portland is like that. “The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland” is what the introduction to the show says, so immediately one is meant to look at the characters and see them as what exactly? 30- and 40- somethings who want to fix the errors of what they went through in the last 20 years? People who felt the past was better? Citizens who wish to live life pre-grunge, pre-hip-hop as a corporate entity, pre-gaming revolution, pre-internet, pre-apps, pre-digital, pre-…cum? It may seem like that from the outside, and I say that as an outsider myself, but watching the show and believing these things will only make you ask one question: what the hell is Portland all about?
For one, Portland is a large metropolitan city with its share of hippies. However, you will also find preppies, hipsters, gangsters, senior citizens, swingers, conservatives, dope fiends, teabaggers, foodies, raw food enthusiasts, and a little bit of everything. You can also find these things in Seattle, San Francisco, Detroit, and every other city Huey Lewis mentioned in the last verse in “The Heart Of Rock’N’Roll”. So why is Portland the hot city of discussion of the moment? I think it’s because it’s a large city whose talent and resources have remained untapped, and the fear is that if the country taps PDX’s ass, it’ll turn into the woman Common rapped about in “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, where she will end up being worn out and torn, but still able to return to the place she calls home. This isn’t to suggest that Portland wants to remain in the past, although shades of the past can be found throughout the city and its various sections. As a record collector, I remember a few years ago when Portland was called “the last untapped vinyl destination”, which comes from young college kids who want to discover a format they didn’t grow up with, and an older generation who found no need to replace a format that they were happy with. Perhaps that’s the perception some people have of the city, the idea that it’s not Miami, it’s not Dallas, it’s not Chicago, it’s not San Francisco. The city of Portland, Oregon is known by name, but very little is known by people outside of the Pacific Northwest, other than how quirky or “weird” it makes itself out to be. Yet within that quirkiness and weird vibes is a sense of wanting to be a Portland resident because the people and the communities feel that the standard of living is very good, even when times are rough, and while I’m only one episode into the show, I think Portlandia is going to show some of the many things that makes Portland worth celebrating, even if some feel it’s unnecessary mockery. Then again, the show was created by Fred Armisen, which obviously means comedy, even if some are not willing to laugh at themselves.
The show is based around different scenarios and storylines, so that Armisen and Brownstein will portray different characters from scene to scene. One scene may show them being overly conscious about the food they consume, while another scene may have them as employees at a women’s book shop. The one thing that I did like was when they showed Armisen’s character overdosing on living in a digital world, and some may thing Portland and being digital is an oxymoron. Truth of the matter is that Portland has a healthy and diverse blogging community, and has been internet savvy for years. There is also a tech community that looks at some of the innovations being done in Portland and the rest of Oregon, some of which is discussed at Rick Turcozy‘s Silicon Florist website. In a recent issue of Portland Monthly there was an article covering the best doctors in the city, while talking about how Portland could take part in becoming a microcosm of what the country’s health care system should be. The city is known for being a mecca of bicyclists, but it’s also encouraging people to think better and smarter about how they travel in and out of the city, with discussions of a forthcoming transportation safety summit producing a number of pros and cons.
Of course, you can also celebrate Portland by taking advantage of a pedestrian-friendly city by discovering the many stairs of the city in The Portland Stairs Book. If you’re unshaven and proud, take part or become a spectator in the West Coast Beard & Mustache Championships. If you want someone to fondle your nether regions, there’s a map for that. Portlandia represents all of this and none of this, so why does it matter?
Let’s be real. The city of Portland, Oregon might seem weird to some, but those people are probably happy with who they are and what they’ve become. Portland is not for them. Those who seek something different and unique may or may not find it in Portland. Truth be told, it can be found anywhere and everywhere. You just have to look, and it just so happens Portland occupies a lot of searchers, even those who are content. Maybe the things they search for seemed varied and different from what you’re looking for, but respect the search. It’s a nerdy city, but that’s a dorky way of saying that this city is well read. I’m a Book, I’m well read, so… Portland seems like a perfect place to be, right? I haven’t lived there yet, but I’d like for it to be a place I will want to call home, and hopefully I will very soon. In the first episode, I see a sense of the people that are there, and it’s not just the characters Armisen and Brownstein portray. Look at the older lady in the library, that’s Portland. Look at the bearded man who has been hiding in the library since 1979 while taking part in a hide & seek contest, that’s Portland.
Maybe want to discover Portland because it’s seen as an intelligent city that isn’t afraid to play the fool, even though they don’t want anyone to call them fools or being foolish. Maybe Portland simply wants people to not poke fun or criticize, but if you’re going to stare, put on a souvenir T-shirt and participate. I also think that Portland has been overshadowed by Seattle for decades, even when Seattle wasn’t the coffee-drinking, tech-savvy city it is today. Upon moving to Washington State in 1984, I remember when it was possible to drive through downtown Seattle and see small corner stores, hear the breeze, and be able to walk on the street for blocks without being hit. With Seattle being home to a number of fisheries, another distinct I remember about some parts of downtown Seattle was how it smelled like a fishing boat. Growing up in Honolulu, I know the sights, sounds, and smells all too well. The Seattle music scene in 1984 was active but bands showed support for other bands, and some bands probably featured members from other bands, so a group of 12 people might have 5 bands ready to go on tour together in a stinky van. The Kingdome was an ugly beast, but people loved the beauty of the ugliness. In 1987 while on The Joshua Tree tour, U2 didn’t play in Seattle, leaving the defunct magazine The Rocket to ask why a big band like them can play San Francisco one night, drive up the West Coast and completely miss Portland and Seattle by heading to Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada? From that point on, it seemed the music community did everything to strengthen itself within themselves, and in time people discovered the unique qualities of their music.
Meanwhile, Portland remained the city on the I-5, not really quiet or dormant but ignored by people who were entralled by the big and bright lights of Seattle, the city of dreams in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Which brings to mind what Portlandia suggests: what exactly was the dream of the 90’s? Or is it about going back to a time before the world seemed to collapse in front of our eyes? Is Portland a utopia? Is it a town of music makers, and in the words of Willy Wonka, are Portlanders the dreamers of the dream? By being exposed to the possibility of being overexposed, will the unicorn magic of Portland slowly fade away? If anything, that may be the biggest fear of all, that Portland in the early 10’s will turn into what Seattle became in the 1990’s: overcrowded with Californians looking to change the ways of the city or adapting the city’s qualities and making themselves look like a fool.
It’s possible that this review has less to do with Portlandia the show and more about the city of Portland and what it represents to an outsider who wants to play in their reindeer games. Nonetheless, love or hate, Portland is there to sample and experience. If the show moves you to pay a visit, they’ll be more than happy to welcome you.
(Portlandia airs Friday nights at 10:30 Eastern/7:30 Pacific on IFC. While the show is produced by Saturday Night Live‘s Lorne Michaels,the show is based on the video projects Armisen and Brownstein used to do together when Brownstein wasn’t recording/touring with Sleater-Kinney. Consider it a high-budget independent video project, and one that works quite well in the context of what the city represents to its residents.)